We are slowly recovering from a design nadir in which design had strayed from function, had confused simplicity of form with simplicity of need. The quest for ‘sustainable design’ is pushing on our understandings of time as a design element, because sustainability is measured as process and function over time. In the contexts of garden design and landscape architecture, the functionality of landscapes must become a design element, with fresh attention paid to duration, accumulation, and erosion. This means bringing the largely forlorn realm of maintenance regime into the design process.
We must shift our understanding of the role of designers as that of instigators rather than sculptors or painters. What exists on the day the opening ribbon is cut is not what was drawn on the final set of drawings, it is the nascent landscape instigated, with that drawing as a chimera of the future.
Missing from Rem Koolhaas’s early 1980s Parc de la Villette competition entry (see Lebbeus Woods’s write up for the background) was the maintenance regime- how were those stripes of planting and park going to evolve? Would portions be mowed and other portions left to ramble? Will any landscape design drawing come to fruition? Very unlikely. How close they will get depends on the maintenance regime- is this being mowed, watered, cared for, over-fertilized, trampled, littered, weeded, or fenced?
A knowledgeable maintenance plan will require understanding the implications of specific interventions. Bob Grese of the Nichols Arboretum in Ann Arbor, Michigan has been experimenting with the implications of various fire regimes for repairing and maintaining prairie ecosystems. (video: Prescribed burn in Nichols Arboretum)While the favoring of native grasses adapted to this ecosystem was anticipated, scientific analysis of the species diversity in plots burned has revealed new information about the power of adjusting how often something burns, and in what season.
If a landscape architect’s site plan includes adding a number of new trees, then the site is guaranteed to undergo an enormous microclimatic shift in the first two decades as the vegetation matures. If designers and engineers were required to visually represent the projects over the first two decades of life, clients would better understand the nature of the nature they are inheriting.
Of course, improving the accuracy of these predictive visions requires that mechanisms be developed to return designers and engineers to their mature, lived-in design sites a number of years later so that they may continue to learn from their successes and mistakes. Awards for excellent design need to be delayed, too. Is that project living up to its hype? Are those trees planted in 4’ cubes of dirt still alive at all?
Building a park sets a landscape in motion, but the actual ecology of the design is what happens next. Each element of the site comes loaded with its own set of potentials, a range of very likely and moderately likely attributes that will play out in accordance with what else is present (including rain, wind, and sun). Landscape and garden design must be considered forms of instigation. The ecology inherent in maintenance will make process artists of us all.